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Building Sustainable Culture

Posted: 10:38AM September 18th, 2014 | Comments


Submitted by:  Andrew Berger   .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)



With the word “sustainability” being tossed around like a salad bowl these days, it's easy to take the word for granted. Sometimes it feels like the word is actually being stirred around a hodge-podge melting pot, but go figure. Without a doubt there are economic, social, and environmental connotations involved with "sustainability", but often in the public sphere the word becomes generalized to a point where it loses depth and meaning. In order to narrow our definition of the word, today I want to touch on how economic growth and - sustainability - is affected by culture.


Sometimes, culture is something inherited or passed down through generations. Other times, culture is a set of learned behaviors and worldviews. When people talk about culture, they attempt to explain and categorize individual actions in terms of a collective. Regardless of the loose definition, it’s important to know that sustainability isn’t just economic. It’s sociological, and just about everything else. What sustainability really comes down to is collective action.


Economic growth theories like the Solow Model often include a "steady state", or a point at which the economy is sustainable by itself. David Weil, scholar and researcher of economic growth from Brown University, has an interesting theory about the influence of culture on economic sustainability. He breaks the influence down into six facets (Economic Growth, Ch. 14). Four of these components are based on individual behaviors, and two are founded on collective behavior. All of them attempt to describe how people’s values, behaviors, and worldviews shape their own economic opportunity. Listen up.


Openness to New Ideas

An open mind with respect to technology is another way of phrasing this idea. When it comes to adopting new methods of production and more labor per worker, new technology is the most accessible form of development. Countries that borrow new technologies have contained some of the fastest growing economies in the world –America (from Europe), and Japan (from America/Europe). Other countries with a lack of open communication and rejection of technological advancement have experienced large stutters in development – China (1500-1900), and Russia (Era of Stagnation).


Belief in the Value of Hard Work

Think for yourself. What defines a person:  labor or leisure? It’s an important question. Whether or not people are defined more by their work or their play, it’s only work that will lead to economic growth. Many cultures take pride and hold respect for a good work ethic. Interestingly, studies have found that people who value leisure over labor are more likely to be wealthy already. Conversely, those who say labor is more important than leisure are more likely to be lower or middle (working) class.


Saving for the Future

According to the Solow Model, countries with higher savings rates should have higher income per capita. In English: people that save more can spend more in the future. Countries with some of the highest savings rates in the 20th century were East Asian – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Some scholars argue that ancient Chinese values drawing from Confucian ideals, stressing virtues like diligence and benevolence, continue to influence modern day savings practices in East Asia. This theory is hard to quantify, but it still attempts to explain the fact that more saving – all in all – leads to more economic opportunity for the future.


Central governments can also influence individual saving and spending. Social security benefits, pension funding, even health care and food subsidies are ways that the central government impacts individual, or private, savings. At Sustain Dane we focus on a component of saving called conservation, and strive to increase awareness of our human footprint. Sustainability isn’t just economic; it’s conscientious. 



Sustain Dane would call this category “social cohesion.” Trust is a denominator of networking. The more that a group of people can stand as a collective and take pride in themselves is a testament to the trust they have in themselves. However, once again, trust isn’t quantifiable. Yeah, there are stereotypes between cultures… But we won’t go there. What trust really has to do with is called “social capital,” namely, reliable institutions. Examples are public education and governments that aren’t corrupt.  




 What defines “sustainable” remains for people to ponder; but keep in mind that your own values, behaviors, and worldviews will leave a footprint on the generations to come.



Andrew B. Berger

Sustain Dane Evaluation Intern

UW-Madison ‘15

Ag. & Applied Environmental Economics

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